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Friday, 06 February 2009


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At my previous job, I found a laser mount in the trash, used in a shut-down optics laboratory. I have absolutely no use for it at all, and it weighs more than 4 kilos, making my wife question my sanity when I dragged it home. But it's a thing of beauty - all solid black-eloxized slabs and blocks of aluminum and brass, every joint ball-bearinged, with precision micrometer-scale adjustment screws.

It may be utterly useless in an objective sense, but it projects such an aura of competent over-the-top precision that it felt like a crime to have it go in the trash. After I'd taken it and put on my desk, a researcher from another lab approached me and asked if I was the one who'd taken it. I answered yes, thinking I'd get chewed out for having broken some lab rule, but he thanked me for taking it, saying "it was such a senseless waste to have that beautiful thing thrown away".

So, over-the-top mechanical precision engineering to appeal to sad, hopeless geeks is another way of preserving things for the long term, it seems.

My dad assigns value to an object by the ratio of its usefulness to how much space it takes up. My mom assigns value to an object by how many of that object you can store in a discreet amount of space.

By the way, if you use your mouse's scroll wheel and quickly scroll up and down a bit while looking at the lunch box picture, it's a great optical illusion: It appears to change the viewing perspective if you are alternating between squatting and standing.

Mike, for most of those collectibles there will be a second trough of no value when those that remember them from their childhood or early adulthood have retired or died. If you have never seen "The Munsters" or carried a metal lunchbox to school why would you care about a Munsters lunchbox? No market, no value.

The truly historical pieces (maybe that 128k Mac) may hold their appeal and their value but just being rare won't help. As for photos, well being famous will help, but only staying famous will ensure your legacy.

Your article has much more "value" with the hand-drawn graph. Please leave it as it is :).

Who in their right mind would throw away a collection of negatives of that magnitude? Stories like that are a shame!!!!

few comments:

first - Mike you & TOP are on a roll, I haven't read so many excellent articles on the web from a single source in such a short period of time ever (and I am an avid web time waster from 20th century)... don't normally post here... but this one just made me...

not only do the "items" go through periods of "less than 0" value... very often people go through the same phase (or should one say most of us?) ... life is in that aspect art - recognizing the value where none seems to be found by whatever standard of the day seems to be in place...

was always the case, but in today's modern world seems ever more so under relentless pursue of instant gratification through "individual choice" which is driven by someone else through mass media and other means for the same reason... resulting in need for ever increasing "work" for everyone to pay for the realization of that collective lust... just for next round to start as the old one was achieved in a perpetual circle jerk that today's society has become... lots of money on one side and lost value on the other. Many items and lives below that 0 line... and as a result we don't normally have time for ourselves, let alone people around us (even closest ones all too often)...

It's a shame but most people don't stop and notice.

and that gets us to "long term" value... being famous... it's a two edged sword... in the long term we are all dead. Once you are gone images (or any items you collected) have no value for you anyhow, but retain it in case you had someone to leave them for, which I guess most of our today's snapshots are for tomorrow... but as you said... something to think about... what is it that gives real value?

It is the relationship that you make with the world around you... being famous is one of those one to many relationships which might just as well give generic value to your work once you are long gone... but I doubt most of us really take the images for that... real value comes from those around us, friends and family while you are still alive :o) ... for that one day hope that when we get old (or older) to share some long lost memory with someone who we happened to share the same day... this is real long term personal value... which is more like hope that there will be that someone one day in the future. On the other hand - this future is today, so we might just stop more often an look into those folders to share some of our past today... as ultimately this is what all that collecting is about, and really where that potential value we are collecting for resides.

As for money, there are many ways of making it, one of them being collection of valuable artifacts, but that is not "true" value we are really after, at least with casual photography, I'd dare to think...

That's a perfect example. Just by being well-made, the thing has preserved itself. I always used to argue for craftsmanship in photography for the same reason...just make it too beautiful to toss and it will live on.

Mike J.

I guess it makes a difference what the picture is of. If you aren't famous, you stand a better chance of having your photographs preserved if you photograph family and then spawn a lot of other family that will care about the pictures.

You in a different position if you make photographs primarily because you are entranced by the the photographic process and the resulting object. If the images are worthy and you mount them well and give them away to people who love you -- those too may last for perhaps a generation.

But on some level the process itself has to be its own reward. As a childless man in my sixties with thousands of images going back 40 years, I think about this a lot.

Thanks for the post.

Bill Poole

I tend to collect things that are beautifully made and useless. I'm gaga for old special purpose slide rules and calculators for instance. One of my favorite things is an old hand cranked english adding machine. The 12 pence = 1 Shilling, 20 shillings = Pound kind. I think it goes up to The company that built it was so proud of it that they made the sides of the thing out of beveled glass, and it must weigh 50 pounds. Goes up to about 20 digits as I recall, but it's in storage so I can't check.
It's both worthless and priceless.

I'm reminded of that line from Spinal Tap, "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever." In this case it would be, "It's such a fine line between valuable and worthless."

It's for this reason that I'm hanging on to my first year of Wired and Mondo 2000 magazines. Currently worthless, but *surely* worth something in a few decades as a record of the early days of the computer and internet boom.

On a related note, here are some photos I took of a computer museum with all kinds of interesting (possibly some worthless) computers at, of all places, the top of the Grande Arche in Paris. It includes the Apple IIc, the Mac SE and the Next Cube, all designed by the company I work for, frog design.


I have a Nikon F3HP 35mm camera and a Linhof 4x5 Kardon Supercolor large format camera. They are worth little these days (I saw an F3 sell for $20 on Ebay recently) but I would not dream of throwing them away as they are beautiful pieces of late 20th century photographic engineering. I'll continue to hang onto them and my son can throw them away after I die.

I second Paul Ewins' point.

I have been thinking about the economics of collecting for years. There are so many issues involved in "collecting as a means of financial gain" but four that I want to point out:
1) Cost of storage (and lugging from domicile to domicile) can eat away any potential gains in value. Figured into "cost of storage" is the position in the brain that a collectible must occupy as well as aggravation costs of ensuring condition of the item. Though on a year by year basis the cost may seem small, averaged over a 20-30 year span, it might be greater than the gain in value of the object.
2) "Completing the set" is the fastest way to appreciate a collection of items (if they can be viewed as part of a larger collection of items). A complete set is usually NOT the sum of the parts but will often generate a significant bump in value of the collection of items.
3) Items that go up like the right-hand side of your graph tend to be items that probably never were "worthless".
4) The curve that Paul Ewins' comment refers to are things that: re-surge because of "nostalgia value" (the lunch boxes) or re-surge because of recent media focus on a particular past person, style or era. As Paul points out, once the wave of nostalgia or historical popularization is over, the items drop back to their base value.

do you ever throw away negatives?
raw or processed images for that matter?
i find myself in a tough place because i must tidy up my own photos and i wonder if just dumping a lot of them would just help...

Items also can suddenly have value based on how much you need them.

Going back to the computer analogy, at a previous job I needed to use our very old environmental chamber. It was still working, but the computer that controlled it let out a big puff of smoke when we switched it on. Replacing the chamber would have cost about 30 grand, but the computer was 20 years old. Suddenly attics were searched for another 'Worthless' BBC micro so we would not have to spend a lot of money.

With negatives there is always the chance that the subject will suddenly become relevant, but you won't know until it happens.

Mike, as Jeff Hartge says the ownership of something can be a millstone and many photo archives have been disposed of because no-one would take the responsibility of managing it. I bumped into an old friend and local historian who freelanced for a newspaper in SW Uk. He had been offered a large photo archive by the paper who wanted to get rid and couldn't interest any local libraries, museums, universities etc. He managed to get funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund resulting in the South West Image Bank being set up


Not only are they preserving this material but are encouraging the public to enjoy it.

What is that contraption behind the desk?

Gas powered printer?

The phone bell on the frontside of the desk is neat.

A corollary to the point about the Trough of no Value generating value for the few examples that make it through because of their scarcity, is that Sold as Collectible items are almost guaranteed to never gain value.

In fifty years, Leicas M7s aren't going to be worth a jot more (inflation adjusted) than they are now since so many people never take them out of boxes. Meanwhile that old Pentax fits-in-an-Altoids-tin camera? Whoever has one of those will have a fortune. I tossed mine when it broke, the day I didn't carry it in an Altoids tin and dropped it.

Collector "value" aside I find photos such as the newspaper office fascinating for their details. Much more so than epic shots of the Grand Canyon, Tetons etc. which haven't changed a lot. Is that a shot deemed "collectible"? Not likely, at least by many.

Details of life in another era such as the cuspidor; high top shoes; telephone bell box; multiple fire extinguishers; some unidentifiable clutter; even the splots (of ink?) on the floor provide some insight into the time.

Appreciation of photos of people I know will die with me -I'm far from famous- unless the occasional one has some observation of the society of it's day. Even so they are not likely to have any monetary value or widespread interest.

"Value" is often enhanced by currently viable function and to a lesser degree by craftsmanship. Old cars are a great example. There was a time up to about 50 years ago when Georgian tableware and other elegant silver was sold for not much more than the value of the metal. It should have had the advantages of age, rarity, craftsmanship, the metal itself and function.. but even there your curve is pretty accurate.

The paper where I worked for over 15 years had negatives on file back to 1944. Prior to that, they had no full time photo staff--photographers kept their negatives. At some point, the storage capacity of the newspaper was filled. The negatives had to go--somewhere. They were eventually donated to a local university library that was to catalog and archive the negatives. Some years after I left the paper, I chanced upon the managing editor who told me the university library could not locate the negatives. They feared the boxes had been trashed before they could be archived.

So much for forty-odd years of the local history.

I have a difficult time letting go of things. I still have my first and last Nikon F2 bodies--but no working lenses. When a local pest control business where my wife was working was moving, they were going to toss out some beautiful glass-enclosed Christian Becker chemical scales with all the weights and accessories. I have them on a bookshelf at home right now. I found out later they were used in the chemical engineering department of a local oil and gas company for several decades. I have no use at all for these scales but I can't imagine them being sent to a landfill. There is too much history and beauty involved.

The point I take from the post and commentary is that most things we enjoy are ephemeral, and that "value" is often an artificial "standard". Collect "art, advertising signs, broken cameras, junk" because you derive pleasure now, and let the next generation make their own choices; not like they won't.
Fame is no guarantee, it can be fleeting; tastes and public whim change, as was noted about Van Gogh.

As to books. I have recently donated all of my Canadian and otherwise railway based publications to the Bytown Railway Society
In Ottawa Ontario, Canada.

There were something like 400 or more books and periodicals collected over a forty year period. I now strongly resist purchasing any book or periodical.

I kept perhaps ten of the publications
obtained over that period.

The next trial, as it could be called is to
review and examine all of my colour slides
and images taken over the same period. Make sure they are in proper sequential order, labelled properly and then just give them away, or find a library or similar that perhaps would welcome them.

There may not be a method to project the slides in the future however there will
more than likely be some device that will be able transform those images into a usable
form for the times in the future.

I suspect wee all get to a point in our lives when less is more.

Bill Poole (above) noted he was childless, try being single, and no children. Same
situation though.

What happen to the experiences of our lives? Of anybody's life for that matter?

Something to think about...


I think a "Trough of No Value" is necessary for the following increase in value. A destruction of units in order to make scarce the irreproductible things of the past...

You (and the others who have said as much) are probably right...I'm sure the variations on the theme are innumerable.

There's also the "value inversion" that we see in camera collecting a lot...the variants that were LESS popular when new become MORE popular later simply because they're scarcer. A black Pentax Spotmatic is worth more than a chrome one, because most of them were chrome. But a chrome ESII is worth more than a black one, because most of them were black. Clearly, that fluctuation of value doesn't reside in the actual color of the camera--it's just a function of scarcity.

Certain Japanese Leica copies are worth more than the actual Leicas they copied, too, for the same reason.

On the other hand, my brother is a gemologist of some distinction, and he's fond of pointing out that really rare gems are not worth very much because there aren't enough of them around to establish a market. To be valuable a gem has to be "rare enough but not too rare."

Mike J.

I remember in the late 80's going to my newpspaper job and seeing three giant commercial laundry type carts overfilled with the photo departments negatives... 70 years worth..waiting for the trash pickup..I was told no space and the historical society didn't want them as they were not in order....To say he least.. I spent the nite digging out what I could find of mine and a few old ones...Joe Louis boxing in Miami , Racing on the beaches in Daytona...Seems thats why their called antiques. If things survive our need for physical space to store new "things". And that goes for todays storage.... that new larger hard drive and its BACKUP to store your photos for the future..At least it takes up less physical space.

My present office threw away a 1980s Leica/Leitz film enlarger last year, and a Leica camera attached to a Leica Reprovit when I was not yet around. In my previous office (in Japan), they threw a working Olympus M-1 attached to a macrophotography set. I picked it up of course, though too bad for the Leicas.

I own a Porsche 914/6 that I inherited from an uncle that was so unpopular when it was new (looking like a car that cost half as much but was as expensive as a Jag XKE made it pretty unpopular) that it sat for two years before it was discontinued and sold at a discount. As soon as they were not available new, and there were only about 3600 of them made, the price started going up and has never been as low as it was when it was new. Being a commercial failure when new can boot the value of something in later years.

Back to photos surviving the trough, take a look at superbomba's collection of other peoples photos on flickr

They are for the most part amazing.
Not because you know these people, not because the photos are examples of good technique, and not because they are strange although many are, but there is something there that draws you in.

This is a fantastic post Mike, very thought provoking.
The world is finite, and our production seemingly infinite. Sometimes I wonder if we as humans need to learn to just...let go.

"Book dealers are very familiar with this, because of the frequency with which members of the public bring in beautifully-bound but worthless books."

Yes, I remember when I was a poor youngster, I brought in a treasured hard bound annual collection of a Danish photographic (Amatørfotografen) magazine from 1903. The print in those was the best I've ever seen, the blacks were soot-black. The used-book dealer actually laughed out loud when I tried to sell it to him.

Value, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I have very much enjoyed this post and all the comments.
A lot of my "junk" is valuable to me and, I'm sure, will be tossed by my heirs. I just finished tossing a lifetime of "treasures" of my father when he passed at age 93.
Whilst negatives and files are valuable in photography, I believe that only prints have real present value. I don't sell my work, but a lot of people are very happy to take copies off my hands. I will typically print 3-4 copies before I am completely satisfied, but my rejects often end up framed on the walls of my friends. Oddly, I find this more satisfying than owning the original.
Could it be that quality is the only thing that significantly affects your curve permanently?

Mike, your curve appears to apply to the per unit price. A curve showing aggregate value of a product would be far higher on the left than it is on the right. Even if the object eventually becomes highly collectible, there won't be enough of them left to make the aggregate value that great. (Well, maybe barring Porsche 914s. But my impression was you meant this to apply to products that are reasonably successful when new, not just the odd ones that never have much value except as collectibles.)

That's an interesting idea, but of course my curve is really just an illustration of what I'm claiming verbally, not real data. It would be interesting to compare individual object curves and aggregate curves with real data, though, for sure.

Although when I think of it, consider that we're talking about photographs...and then think of somebody like Eugene Atget, who scraped out a living selling prints as references for artists, then had his work literally rescued from the trash by Berenicve Abbott, and is now considered one of the great 19th and early 20th century photographers. I don't know what his auction prices are like offhand, but I'll bet the aggregate curve for him would be hugely biased towards the post-trough side of the graph.

Mike J.

Warner Bros. destroyed nearly all the original animation cells for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies sometime in the late 60s. Think about that for a moment. These were properties that had been making coin for decades, yet WB didn't think keeping the original artwork was worth the storage costs.

I saw Chuck Jones talking to Dick Cavett about this once. The look on Cavett's face when Jones told him all the cells were gone is a permanent memory of mine.

When I moved to Hollywood, California in 1974, I was introduced to a male my age and he invited me to his apartment so we could talk about life. Upon showing me the backyard behind it, I noticed a large safe adjacent to a tree. Spilling out of the safe were countless exposed movie film rolls, most still within the large, flat 'cans' similar to that which my father stored his 8mm home movies in. The film was larger than 8mm, so it was definitely subject matter related to Hollywood. Unfortunately, I failed to grab any of them and I also did not pick one up and attempt to look at the images. Consequently, to this day I still occasionally wonder what was on those rolls and regret not determining that! (Mystery unsolved and never to be solved. Damn!)

This reminds me of the tale told by Henry Petroski in his book "The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance" -- http://www.amazon.com/Pencil-History-Design-Circumstance/dp/0679734155 -- about how, in researching his topic, he went in search of artifacts. What he found was that it was virtually impossible to find old pencils. No one ever gives them a second thought. One person he spoke with, who sometimes obtains old carpenters toolboxes, told him that they would throw out the old pencil fragments right along with all the other debris in the bottom of the box.

Recently we cleaned out the storage room at our summer house...among the things we threw away were like-new, unopened boxes and bottles of cleanser and soap flakes and the like, from the '40s, '50s, and '60s. As I saw them go I just *knew* that somewhere there is a collector who would have loved those things, but it would have been too difficult to bring artifact and collector together...so away it all went.

Mike J.

I enjoy watching the Antiques Roadshow on PBS here in the US. Avid viewers will note that you never see the exact same object twice during an episode. My grandfather who was a barber came home from his shop at the end of each day and tossed some of the interesting old coins in his pockets into a bucket. When he died my father was left with three buckets of old coins. A nice turn of the 20th-century silver dollar can be worth decent money. Try selling 300 of them. There is a limit on what you can sell just as there is a limit on what you can keep. These two factors weigh heavily on the value of what we collect.

Well, y'know, all things must pass...

Forgive me for the following apt, if overused poem.

OZYMANDIAS by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

One important point which you didn't make, I think:

A lot of things become valuable partly BECAUSE so many were thrown away. Think about, say, early personal computers: they're not actually very interesting or useful any more, but they are now becoming valuable because there are not many left. They were made in fairly large numbers, so the reason there are not many left is that the vast majority were thrown away.

So there is an interesting dilemma here. If everyone keeps things because they will eventually become interesting and valuable, then they will never become interesting and valuable because too many of them exist.

I think the solution to this, when deciding what to keep, is to keep things which will be valuable to you for other reasons than scarcity.

This is why it kills me that so many people in the entertainment and software industries are working so hard to kill secondary markets for their products. We pay too much for these things not to be able to share them. It's a blatant attempt to focus wealth on a few by forcing people to pay for things over and over again which become more ephemeral by way of the difficulty of preserving them.

I have collected three of the great 35mm cameras (Leica M3, Nikon S-2, and Contax IIa) from the mid-50's because they were the models used by my heroes at the magazines of the time like Life, Look, and National Geographic. I couldn't afford them then and they represented much-admired objects. For my own photography now I use digitals which cost ten times as much as the others did in 1955. Probably equivalent value but I don't think a Canon 5D will have much value fifty years from now.

I urge people to keep their negatives, AND
be very thoughtful about photos you contemplate throwing in the trash. Thru the
years I pitched or gave away photos that did not meet my expectations. I had a vision
of what I wanted to see, and often that
image did not translate to the print. So out
went the photo, or slide, often to someone
who liked it and would not get that image on
their own.

I recently purchased a scanner so I could get the negatives on to a cd and enable me to have a positive image that I could edit
and print. I found out immediately that my
problem wasn't that I was a bad photographer, but that I'd settled for awful
processing. After going thru roughly 1200
negs and 1000 slides, I firmly believe that
my life could have headed in another direction had I seen then what I see now.
I still have many to go thru, and when I think of some of the slides and negs I threw
away I want to cry.

As far as collecting goes, I simply can't
part with my three Canon slr's even though
I've switched to a simple digital camera.
There are way too many memories attached to
those cameras.

The flip side of this is stuff deemed "collectible" when new. Beanie babies and anything from The Franklin mint come to mind. If a bunch of people are hoarding this stuff they will never be rare enough to be truly collectible. I tired to explain this to my kids every time they bought and stored a beanie that "was going to be rare someday".

What this interesting post and the comments illustrate nicely, is that "value" is not something absolute or intrinsic to an object, but something that is attributed to the object in a certain context. And as the context change, the value may change likewise.
In a market economy, value is often equated with price. However, objects can have value in many other ways. Value is often a function of the story or meaning the object conveys to somebody - be that an individual or a certain group of people.
This is where public museums come into play. Their objective is to find, preserve, exhibit and communicate such objects, which convey stories or meaning of importance to society.
This, I can say from my own personal experience, is not an easy task.
At the Dept. of Modern History, Danish National Museum, where I work, we do collect photographs. However, we seldom accept or reject photos based on their artistic value – and never on the basis of their commercial value.
One of the main aims of the department is to documents changes in people’s daily life throughout the last 350 years. Thus, we have in our collection both the archives of commercial photographers, family albums and personal collections as well as a vast number of “diverse” photos, including such that has been taken by museum staff for documenting purpose.
What is important for us is to gather as much information as possible for each photo. As we ultimately collect objects in order to be able to tell stories of the past, we need as much information about the objects as possible. A photo with no information about who took it, why and when can be useless to us, even if it’s a beautiful example of photographic craftsmanship.
That is also why, that in an ideal world we would collect most of our objects not just from what the public more or less randomly comes to offer us, but as part of carefully planned research programs. This would ensure that we get as much relevant information as possible and that we expand our collections in areas, which are particularly relevant. Unfortunately, we have only very limited funding to do so.
Looking back at the historical evolvement of photography as a mass medium, from the point of view of a museum, there has and will be different challenges. From the early period of photography, the number of objects to be collected is scarcer and some of them involve at lot of work and expenses, when it comes to preservation and storing. During the mid-20th century there is a vast increase in the number of objects, since photography becomes accessible for everybody.
But still: as long as taking pictures – even family snapshots – involves a rather lengthy and not especially cheap process of buying the film, taking the picture, having it processed, sorting out the best ones and putting them in an album, there is a great chance that the family album more or less consciously reflects the self-image of its producers: these are the pictures, that the original photographer valued and cherished. This makes such an album a possible source of how people at a certain time and space interpreted their own lives.
With the advance of digital photography, however, the number of pictures has exploded. The process of photographing is now quick and almost free, so there is no reason not to photograph anything that catch your eyes – be it important or not. For the future museum curators, who inherit a collection of digital snapshots, the job of sorting out the meaning of the photos as the photographer’s interpretations of his or her own life becomes much more complicated. What is important here, what is not – and in what sense and context?
There are great challenges ahead, in the area of research methodology and theory.

Lars K. Christensen
Curator and senior reseacher

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